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Gifted Education and the Schools to Prison Pipeline

Don’t you love it when searching for an article leads you instead to another article even more thought provoking than the one you were looking for? That happened to me as I was trying to finish up a paper on the under-representation of minorities in gifted education programs. In The Hechinger Report, a Teachers College publication, I found an article entitled “Where is the Outrage about the Pipeline to Prison for Gifted Students?” which makes the argument that gifted students who don’t receive proper services may also end up at risk for a less than a societally friendly future. This is especially the case for potentially gifted students who grow up in low-income communities in which gifted programs aren’t so readily available. For example, in New York, District 7, which comprises the South Bronx, lacks a single gifted education program. Florina Rodov and Sabrina Truong, the authors of the article, who are former teachers at the High School for Media and Communication in Washington Heights, compare the trajectory of two of their students who were gifted, one of them being doubly exceptional in that he also has a disability. Both students were in an inclusion class intended for both general education and special education students. Rodov and Truong admit that they didn’t know a great deal about how to teach gifted students at the time, though they did their best. One of the two students went on to a prestigious college and excelled, while the other dropped out of school completely. Rodov and Truong conclude,

“High ability students from low-income backgrounds, as compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Dropping out triples the likelihood of incarceration later in life.”

From my limited experience with court-involved youth, I noticed that a handful of them were actually quite gifted writers, performers, artists, etc. I wondered how many of them had been misdiagnosed for special education services instead of for gifted services. The article references a statistic in Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential in stating that 20 percent of the youth who end up in the country’s prison systems may very well fall into the gifted category. Inspired by this statistic I created a virtual gifted education program for incarcerated youth as part of a project for one of my TC classes. Too many potentially gifted students, especially from low-income backgrounds, find themselves disenfranchised because they aren’t being educated to their full potential. These same students too often get caught up in illicit activities as a result of all of the disconnects in their lives. I firmly agree with Rodov and Truong when they write that more needs to be done about reaching this population and about the educational services provided for gifted prisoners.

Wrapping Up the Semester

I can’t believe the YMEJ experience is already half over. Nor can I believe even at the halfway point how profoundly the course has affected me. For certain I couldn’t possibly have foretold how it’s impacted my very life. In fact I clearly remember back in September debating whether or not I should register for the course. For one thing, the schedule arrangement seemed very daunting to me – 3 hours, from 5:30pm-8:30pm on Mondays. I wasn’t sure I could physically handle that. It would mean I would have to come to Teachers College directly from my job as a high school teacher in East Harlem, and I wouldn’t be getting back to my mid-town apartment until close to 10:00 pm. As it turned out, my job actually served as both the possible hindrance and the ultimate good fortune to be taking the course. As I got acquainted with my new school and the surrounding community, I quickly saw how the topics discussed in class – youth incarceration, foster case, media, trauma in adolescence and race relations – illuminated prevalent issues in the lives of the young people I teach.

Coincidentally, after school today (Dec. 22nd), just as I sat down to write this post, a student came over to me and said he was arrested on Friday and held over the weekend at the ACS-run Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx. At the beginning of the school year, I told my students that the juvenile justice system, among other social issues impacting youth, was a particular interest of mine and that I would be happy to talk about it any time. Perhaps the student told me of his troubles since he remembered what I’d said earlier. He knew I wouldn’t hear him out without a sympathetic response to his plight.

In the YMEJ class meetings, some colleagues let it be known that this was the first time they were given the opportunity in an academic setting to engage in serious discussions on these issues.   I conclude that many of our teacher preparation programs have failed us. I now firmly believe that a course such as YMEJ can help all of us further develop as both educators and as individuals. By critically examining the ways in which these issues impact young people, I hope to be able to better serve my students.

From the very first week of class, the YMEJ teaching team created what I felt was a very welcoming and supportive environment. We have all shared deeply personal stories – about our families, our educational experiences, etc. The phrase “safe space” has been brought up many times in the semester. It’s a phrase that’s tossed around in educational circles but rarely truly dissected. I’m guilty myself of casually telling my students they’re in a safe space, but after a discussion in class one evening, I began seriously to question what that even means. I now think we must ask ourselves, for whom is the classroom safe? The privileged? The oppressed? The teachers? All students? I’ve learned from YMEJ just how complicated the answers to those questions must be.

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